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For Democrats, A Defining Moment

Clinton on Trial

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  • By Michael Powell
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Monday, February 8, 1999; Page C1

    To cheer or not to cheer? To pump her hands in the frigid December air or to stare in pointed and sullen silence?

    Andrea Camp, lifelong Democrat and feminist, watches a presidential motorcade unexpectedly swing into view in downtown Baltimore. Her emotions are a glorious riot.

    "It's real early, I'm alone on this city street, I know he'll see me," she says. "This is my chance to give him a signal, and oh man, what will it be?"

    She runs down her mental Bill Clinton checklist:

    Morally damaged? Yep.

    Has trouble with the truth? Ditto.

    A conservative centrist in liberal's cloth? Uh-huh.

    And yet . . .

    The motorcade sweeps close, pale light glinting off black windows. Suddenly she's putting down her bags and giving a thumbs up. Suddenly she's smiling.

    "He's not perfect, but he is riding the right historical vector. He's become a symbol of something bigger. . . . It's bizarre, but it's like he's Elvis for liberals."

    As Clinton completes his unlikely walk across the impeachment high wire, he's playing to adoring houses in many cities, and his most fervent applause arises from the liberal balcony.

    Jesse Jackson noshes presidential nachos on Super Bowl Sunday. Labor and civil rights perennials rally on the steps of the Capitol. And liberal legislators take to the lawn of the White House to toast their man, immediately after he has been impeached for perjury and obstruction of justice in a sexual harassment lawsuit filed by a working-class woman.

    In New York last week, at that palais of the powerful known as Le Cirque, the president schmoozes with the liberal adoring: Ethan Hawke and Glenn Close, Woody Allen (no, let's not go there) and Harvey Weinstein.

    "We will go to the wall for this president," declared Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. at a Martha's Vineyard soiree last August.

    And the liberal literati take to their gilded rampart, the New Yorker magazine, to proclaim the liberation of the id and the beating back of the sexual revanchists. Toni Morrison claims Clinton as the first "black" president. Jane Smiley opines that Clinton "knows the difference between love and war." And novelist Ethan Canin holds that Clinton's transgressions are proof of "an openness of spirit and a fullness of experience . . . that allows him to embrace high ideals and at the same time to permit trespasses against convention."

    Ah . . . right.

    But if liberals, on and off Capitol Hill, are this president's most energetic defenders, bosom mates in the pitched struggle with conservative Republicans, their alliance has its curious aspects.

    This is the same Clinton whose proclaimed intent is to wrest his party from its liberal captivity. He champions the death penalty and welfare reform -- leavened with support for the environment and Medicare. And he slips and slides on matters of sex and personal ethics, a matter of no small moment for liberals who long ago marked the personal as political.

    The irony of a shotgun political marriage is not lost on some liberals who fought the impeachment battles these past few months.

    "This impeachment was such an overreach, so lacked in proportionality, that I viewed this as a necessary political war," says Sen. Paul Wellstone, a Minnesota Democrat. "But this same president has really taken the soul out of the Democratic Party. The danger now is that it will appear that we don't care about ethics and values, and that isn't true."

    Liberal With Criticism

    Christopher Hitchens clears his throat, his famously incendiary wit all but clotting in his windpipe.

    "Clinton's a very cheap and nasty character, and I've always been struck by the absurdity of those who consider him a liberal. His crowd ran Arkansas like a banana republic."

    The expat-Brit writer inhales ever so slightly.

    "One hears him referred to as a philanderer, but that word carries a certain dash and class. It shouldn't be used [for this liaison]. You can argue that Lewinsky is a very small keyhole into Clintonism, but it's exactly what you'd expect to find. "

    And so on and so on.

    Within the belly of liberalism, a certain indigestible bubble arises at the mention of Clinton. A smallish band of left and liberal intellectuals, writers and political operatives have long argued that this man is not worthy of support, a point Hitchens expounds upon in a forthcoming book titled "No One Left to Lie To: The Triangulations of William Jefferson Clinton."

    They worry that a visceral distaste for the right has convinced many a liberal to jump into an unruly bed with a man who applauds chastity training for welfare teenagers even as he cats about with a twenty-something intern.

    Harvard scholar Randall Kennedy argues in the American Prospect that Clinton used the rhetoric of moral responsibility to buttress support for capital punishment. He credits Clinton for his ease with African Americans but notes that the president's "deeply ingrained moral weakness" undermines even modest reforms on the racial front.

    And Barbara Ehrenreich, a longtime left-liberal writer and columnist, notes the strange coincidence that Clinton seems to drop real bombs whenever his libido gets him down. Thus his August speech acknowledging an improper affair with Lewinsky is coupled with the long-range bombing of a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan. And the December impeachment trial in the Senate commences against a background Muzak of bombs falling on Iraq.

    Just three House Democrats opposed that bombing, far fewer than opposed previous attacks on Iraq.

    "People on the left side of the spectrum should have jumped up and down at these bimbo bombings. That's our historic moral role," Ehrenreich says. "Instead, our representatives were muzzled, and Jesse Jackson was outside the Capitol leading a pro-Clinton rally."

    In these days of the Clinton-liberal concordat, however, such talk registers as near heretical. The charm of impeachment is an enemy easily found: anything or anybody from the Party of the Elephant.

    And the Republicans House managers, say many liberals, have encouraged such partisan solidarity by keeping fingers heavy on the keyboard. Henry Hyde's insistence on invoking abortion as another noble cause in his impeachment perorations, the none-of-your-damn-business incantations of Rep. Jim Rogan (R.-Calif.), has set hair to rising on many liberal napes.

    Even those liberals who balk at fealty to Clinton find it difficult to sit with lips pressed silent as the Republicans attack.

    "I'm not defending the president, whose behavior was reprehensible. I'm defending the presidency," says Peter Edelman, a senior welfare adviser to the president who resigned in protest over Clinton's signing of the welfare reform law. "We are defending a presidency from people who are even worse than he is."

    Such arguments rather stick in Hitchens's silvery craw. He's heard all the defenses, he can repeat them without being asked. He's watched as the Republican right sends liberal Democrats skittering into the presidential ranks.

    "Clinton is quite lucky in his enemies," says Hitchens, who this weekend swore out an affidavit stating that a White House aide trafficked in rumors about Monica Lewinsky. "I know apparently rational people who will say to me, 'Well, what about Hyde's adultery?' Or 'So would you support Dan Quayle for president?' "

    "And they look at me as though they think they've laid an egg. But it won't hatch."

    The Women Behind the Man

    When it comes to resisting impeachment, Eleanor Smeal is a Sherman tank with but one gear: forward, ever forward. All this prattling about Clinton's faults, about liberal hypocrisy and moral conundrums, is just so much talk, she says.

    The enemy lies on the right: The Christian Coalition, conservative moneybags. The lines of struggle are -- at last! -- illuminated.

    "The trial has exposed people who were quite obscure," Smeal says. "It's galvanized feminist groups against the sex police. . . . On our side, we favor personal liberty and choices, and their side is hypocritical and puritanical."

    But what of the president?

    "He's appointed more women to high places than any president. He's pro-choice. "

    But his behavior?

    "We find it wrong. Everybody gets that. But we're keeping things in proportion. This has galvanized feminists. To say that consensual sex should be impeachable . . ."

    It is the thread that runs through so many liberal and feminist defenses of Clinton, the bedrock assumption that this impeachment is all about consensual sex. But that assumption only holds, some liberal and feminists counter, if one reckons without Paula Jones.

    "This constant reiteration about consensual sex is a disingenuous way of avoiding the accusations that Paula Jones raised," says Ron Rosenbaum, who writes of Jones in a recent essay in the New York Observer. "She's the forgotten woman because she raises the possibility that Clinton is not just a womanizer but something much uglier: A boss who exposes himself to underlings."

    Rosenbaum emphasizes that he cannot prove the truth of her accusations. But he says Jones had alleged disturbing behavior: boorish leerings, the reliance on his police guard to help procure a woman. And a bit of artful dodging as well.

    "We are asked to believe that it's just a case of he said-she said," Rosenbaum says. "But that asks us to believe that a president who has lied about everything else, about Gennifer Flowers, lied about Monica Lewinsky, and about every other difficult question in his life, is in this single instance telling the absolute truth."

    Smeal counters that this is but a diversion, that Jones let herself become a creature of her far-right lawyers.

    But that's not the end of it. Ask Patricia Ireland of the National Organization for Women about Jones and she heaves the sigh of a captain aware of the libidinous shoals ahead. Her organization opposes impeachment as a conservative witch hunt. But she worries about the damage incurred by defending a president whom she views as more cad than friend of women.

    NOW declined to endorse Clinton in 1996.

    "The lesson is that sexism is not confined to any one part of the political spectrum," Ireland says. "He can respond as a professional to Madeleine Albright and Janet Reno but uses Paula Jones and Monica Lewinsky and then throws them away like tissue paper."

    Ireland tried to reach out to Jones, offered to meet with her. Her calls were not answered, and that's bred an enduring wariness. But she volunteers that Jones's allegations, if true, constitute crude sexual harassment. Nor, she makes a point of adding, is she comforted by those who limn Lewinsky as a consensual sex partner of the president's.

    "No CEO should be using a position of power to have sex with an intern in the workplace," she says. "There is no real equality in such relationships."

    She pauses a second or two, then talks of her past. She was, long ago, a stewardess walking the airline aisles at a time when business-class was a male preserve and women such as her were seen as air candy.

    It's bequeathed to her an anthropologist's appreciation of a certain male archetype.

    "Bill Clinton is the epitome of a type of cultural behavior," she says. "He's the good old boy, the arrested adolescent who somehow grew up to be president. I look at him and I just think, 'Give us a break, Bill Clinton, you're hurting us. Grow up!' "

    In Doubt

    Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D.-N.Y.) is one of those quick-lipped, motor-mouthing, legalism-spouting Yankee liberals who seemed sometimes to flummox their Southern Republican counterparts during the House Judiciary Committee hearings on impeachment. He hails, in fact, from that ground zero of argumentative American liberalism, the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

    But don't try to convince Nadler to assay a generalized defense of liberalism and Clinton. No, no. He's talking legal technicalities here.

    "When they were talking about Filegate, let me tell you, if they had convincing evidence that Clinton was using federal departments to harass people, I would have voted for impeachment," he says. "Thank God that fell off the radar screen."

    Nadler's objections go to due process, to evidence, to the underwhelming nature of the crimes. No high crimes and misdemeanors here. But talk with Nadler long enough, follow him up enough rhetorical fire escapes, and he'll say that Clinton just might have given Republicans the legal slip.

    "He may well have perjured himself and obstructed justice, but it's not proven," Nadler says. "I can say the guy's a jerk, but that's not a proven crime, and not an impeachable offense either.

    "I don't have to defend the behavior to defend the institution."

    Perhaps. But, as some liberals acknowledge, the defense of an embattled president can have unintended consequences. Their championing of the president these many months, their counter-salvos at the Republican right, have fed a sense of vindication among the liberal rank and file.

    And Bill Clinton is their vessel.

    So there is the final irony for liberal leaders: Their multiplying doubts may now outstrip those of the nation as a whole. And therein lies the conundrum for liberals: Where do morality and ethics now fit in their politics? Are there no absolutes in matters of sex and morality, and are liberals simply to champion that change?

    Wellstone, the liberal senator from Minnesota, is well acquainted with the tensions of defending an ethically damaged president. He recalls a crystalizing moment last fall: He's crammed inside a car, tooling across Wisconsin, campaigning for his friend Sen. Russ Feingold (D.-Wis.) on a spectacular autumn day.

    His driver this day is a good woman, a liberal and a Democrat, and she draws cheer from Wellstone's fight against impeachment and the Republican right.

    "She said, 'You know, I really don't care what Clinton did. It's not important to me or to my friends.' "

    Wellstone, as he recalls it, falls silent. Then he turns to her.

    "I said, 'We don't know each other and I don't want to sound self-righteous, but I care a lot about his behavior.' For liberals to think that all we care about is 10-point programs and not values and how you live your life, no, no.

    "I deeply resent this president's behavior and what it's done to us."

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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